Black History Month: Harold Potts Loves ISU
Photo of Harold Potts appears courtesy of Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library
This story was written by Iowa State Athletics Communications intern Dan Haugo
AMES, Iowa - Iowa State has recognized its first African-American student-athlete, Jack Trice, who played for the Cyclones in 1923. Many fans know the story of his tragic fate, dying from injuries suffered in a game at Minnesota.
Holloway Smith was Iowa State's second African-American athlete, playing football in 1926 and 1927. But after Smith, there was not another African-American football player wearing the Cardinal and Gold until 1952.
In 1953, head coach Abe Stuber had captained the Cyclone football ship for the previous five seasons. During the off-season, Stuber traveled east to the Quad Cities to recruit players from Davenport Central High School. He returned having acquired three Blue Devils, two of whom were Hank Philmon and Harold "R.E." Potts. They would become the fourth and fifth African-American football players in Cyclone history.
Potts began playing football in high school after his family moved from Joplin, Mo. to Davenport. After winning many games and being surrounded by many good athletes, Potts was recognized for his performance by Stuber, who gave Potts a scholarship to play football at Iowa State.
When Potts arrived in Ames in the fall of 1952, freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity football team. They had to play on a 'freshmen' team that was allowed to practice with the rest of the squad. Following Potts' freshmen season, coach Stuber left Iowa State.
"I found him to be a good coach," Potts said. "He was a person who believed in people and never gave us any kind of trouble as animosity goes. He was interested in our grades but never brought up anything about race."
Potts got little scrutiny from his peers or superiors.
"We never had any talk of what my role (on the team) would be as an African-American," Potts said. "I was an 18-year-old kid, I had no interest in that and they didn't either. "
On the field Potts, like a majority of the players in his day, played both ways. He focused on playing end (today's wide receiver) on the offensive side of the ball. Newly hired Iowa State head coach Vince DiFrancesca brought in as ends coach, Alex Agase. His new position coach left Potts with many memories and distinct impressions.
"Coach Agase is one of the most dynamic, hard-hitting individuals I've ever met," Potts said.
Agase, who would go on to be the head coach at Northwestern and Purdue, always taught in a first-hand fashion; he was indeed, literally hard-hitting.
"During practice, he would teach us how to block," Potts said. "He'd come running at us trying to show us and we'd say 'Oh no. Don't hit me, coach. I see what you mean.' He would knock you up in the air. He'd knock your socks off."
At Iowa State, Potts encountered experiences that transcended his on the field challenges.
South of Iowa's border with Missouri, race relations were uneasy. When Potts traveled with the Cyclones to Columbia, Mo. to play the Tigers. The team stayed at a local hotel. Potts (and Philmon) were forced to stay in an African-American funeral parlor.
"They treated us noticeably different," Potts said. "I didn't have a lot of animosity about it but I didn't like it. I liked Iowa a lot more than I liked Missouri because of incidents of that nature."
Nevertheless, Potts did not hold a grudge. Run by an elderly black couple, the funeral parlor had a bedroom with two beds and a washroom where he and Philmon could stay and clean up.
"It was a nice home," Potts said. "She had a room for us and we had our own beds. It wasn't bad that we couldn't stay with the team."
Moving further south into Oklahoma, segregation became more prevalent. During his senior year, the Cyclone football team arrived in Norman on Friday, a day before the game. As the team went to eat, Potts and Philmon were separated from the rest of the squad and forced to eat in a designated section behind some curtains. All the while, Potts remained positive.
"As I went through life I learned early from my grandfather 'don't let things get on your back,'" Potts said. "You do the best you can and things will work out. I didn't get too worked up about it."
From 1953-55, the three years Potts played varsity, the Cyclones went 6-21-1 under DiFrancesca. Potts was never discouraged. Grateful to be on scholarship and receiving an education, he was also an integral part of the teams' limited success. Potts lettered in the 1954 and 1955 making 17 career catches for 221 yards and five touchdowns. He was the teams' leading receiver both seasons in Iowa State's single-wing offense.
The 1956 Bomb (the student yearbook) summarized Potts' senior season.
"The other half of the ISC right side defensive combination turned out to be about the top offensive surprise of the year. Small for an end, 6-0, 170 pounds, Harold caught 14 passes for 173 yards and tallied three times for the best Cyclone Point output. In spite of his size, "Pottsy's" fierce desire and hard work made him one of coach DiFrancesca's prize grid pupils."
Potts' experience at Iowa State stretched far beyond his days on the football field. He and Philmon were roommates throughout their time at Iowa State residing in Friley Hall. Both coming from Davenport Central, they spent a lot of their time together. Many nights they would go to Des Moines and meet up with some friends they had made when playing football against Drake.
"Hank and I had some good times," Potts said. "He helped me with my studies and helped me focus at times when I was having trouble with a class or something like that. He was always a hard charger; worked hard, studied hard."
During the time he spent in central Iowa, Potts met a woman from Drake that he would marry at the end of his college career. In May of 1956, Potts graduated with a degree in industrial administration. Completing ROTC training, he joined the Army. Potts began his military career as a second lieutenant, serving "four years, eight months and 27 days."
Potts was dedicated to working in the armed forces. He served in the 3rd Infantry Division and took his family to Germany where they lived for 33 months. Their time overseas was cut short because he was going to communications school at Fort Sill, Okla. When he was finished those studies, he moved back to Davenport. Potts was hired by Caterpillar as a supervisor in the quality control department.
Potts worked for 21 years before taking advantage of early retirement. For six months of the year Potts and his wife, Charlesetta live in Peoria, Ill. The other half of the year they live in Hollywood, Fla. on a golf course where Potts spends much of his time on the links.
Potts has lived his life making the best of any situation. He played football and graduated from Iowa State before moving on to a successful career in the military and with Caterpillar. To this day, his love of the game and his warm feelings for Iowa State remain part of his legacy as a Cyclone.
"I remember my mother in the stands when a man would get on the microphone and say 'tackle by Potts,'" Potts said. "She would really be excited about it. That meant a lot to me. I couldn't be prouder to be a Cyclone."